about the author

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Chicago Literati, and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

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The Age of Red  

Matthew Vasiliauskas

If you were to ask anyone from our village, they would tell you my grandfather invented red.

My family came from Vilkaviškis, a community in Southwest Lithuania that rests along the banks of the Šeimena River.

There, we were a lot of things. We were church-going Catholics, sugar beet farmers and prominent nudists.

No one remembers exactly how this attraction to nudity developed. But by shedding our clothes a great deal of freedom and entrepreneurship emerged. Soon, according to either my Aunt Gamata or Uncle Herkus, the family began pursuing a number of labor-intensive jobs, including carpentry.

Yes, I seem to recall being nine or ten, standing barefoot on the moist grass of a meadow, watching my family assemble the wooden frames of houses. It was either early morning or late evening, the moment when the majority of sky is a bulbous mound of pink. As these tired, naked figures rested against the structures, their silhouetted bodies became holes, I thought. Thin gateways to realms I was eager to explore.

Now, if I remember correctly, my grandfather initially moved the family to Vilkaviškis in the hopes of adding further financial stability to our lives. This had to be 1936. Or maybe 1937?

I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive me. You see, the reason I often question my memory is that I suffered a severe concussion in my twenties, leaving my recollections somewhat fragmented.

As I said, our family adapted to life in Vilkaviškis and thrived. But more than our farming and carpentry work, it was the production of color pigments that cemented our success.

Almost anyone from the town would tell you, that before my grandfather arrived, red did not exist. Sure, the storefronts and church steeples often featured an array of cobalts and canary yellows, but rarely red. In fact, according to my Uncle Bronius, the sight of a tomato or an apple would produce tears in the eyes of the recipient, as if a diamond had been placed into their trembling hands.

All of this changed though when my grandfather opened his spalva shop in the town center. There, amidst boxes of parchment and paintbrushes, he would produce and sell an array of dyes and powders. Although one could find just about any color within the shop, it was a vivid carmine that became his most popular.

“Meinininkas,” the citizens would cry out as they grasped the glistening vial. “You are an artist!”

If memory serves me right, I would often accompany my grandfather as he set out to collect the most important ingredient for carmine production. After locking up the shop, we would carefully climb onto our bicycles and traverse the winding streets of Vilkaviškis, waving and whistling to the townspeople until finally arriving at the banks of the Šeimena River.

There, pushing aside bushels of rosemary, we would follow a narrow trail until arriving at a cluster of knawel plants growing along the shore. “Atrodo,” my grandfather would whisper, as he lifted one of the leaves to reveal a tiny Lietuviškai Beetle clinging to its underside.

Then, with the care of a watchmaker, he would flip the beetle onto its back, revealing a nearly translucent abdomen containing an array of cog-like organs all churning at great speed. Using the soft-surface of his thumb, he would press down on the creature. After a brief sputter, its thin appendages would detach, causing its carapace to crumble. And all that would remain, if I remember correctly, would be a tiny mound of crimson, its vibrancy causing my grandfather’s palm to seemingly glow beneath the swaying birch trees.

We would gather baskets full of these beetles, processing them into the treasured pigments back at our shop. Soon, the rather plain, beige structures of Vilkaviškis were bathed in beetle red. The Cathedral of The Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Anthony’s Hospital, and even Nojus Norkus’s rabbit museum all utilized my grandfather’s unique color. One of my fondest memories, at least I think it was mine, was watching the plaid-skirted students of Barbora Women’s College move in and out of the local kepykla. With warm pyragas resting in the windows, the women would exit the domed structure nibbling on squares of ruby torte cake, as if they were in the process of devouring a giant strawberry.

Everything changed though in June of 1941. Or was it September? Anyway, the Nazis invaded Lithuania and made Vilkaviškis part of their plan for eradication.

To this day, whenever I hear a scream it echoes. It might be a cheer of joy or yell of fright, but regardless, I find myself pressing my palms tightly against my ears, hoping to stop the ringing. I suppose it started with one of the explosions. Perhaps it was the Turgus? Maybe the hospital? Either way, there was fire. People aflame, their flesh falling from their limbs, and as they approached the soldiers their ignited bodies quickly tumbled from the gunshots. You see, fragments are all I can remember from this time. But in every moment, there is screaming.

Leaving our belongings behind, my family fled and once again found ourselves at the banks of the Šeimena River. A rotting, rickety bridge led to the opposite shore, and as I prepared to step onto the planks I gazed down into the slow-rolling water. Like the carmine resting in my grandfather’s palm, a deep crimson had overtaken the bubbling swells. I briefly followed the trail of red as it seemingly led back to town, now nothing more than a fading shadow.

“Eik! Skubėk,” my grandfather cried, and I rushed across the bridge. Unfortunately, I cannot picture our escape from this point. Yes, I hear the rustling of grass and smell the rue flowers, but cannot see them. The next moment for me is our family sitting around a large fire as an old woman shows us her dancing lizard. I’d like this to be true, I often tell myself. But like all things now, I cannot be sure.

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